The Wellness Connection of Maine, the state’s largest cannabis company, saw significant change in it’s leadership over this past weekend. Patricia Rosi, who has been the CEO since 2013, has left for a position with Acreage Holdings, the organization's New York-based parent company. With the WCM at the center of various legal battles and public controversies in Maine, speculation has been made regarding what a new public face means for the company going forward.
Rosi has been a prominent player in the Maine cannabis scene for a number of years and is known for her advocacy on improving the state’s medical program, specifically ensuring that cannabis companies regardless of size be treated equally, a locally-favorable decision which greatly benefited small-scale caregivers who typically feel underrepresented in legislative decisions. In contrast, Rosi is also regarded as the face of corporate cannabis in Maine and representative of what many see as out-of-state interests coming to take advantage of Maine’s thriving medical and up-and-coming adult-use markets.
Her departure comes at a turbulent time for her former company, with the Wellness Connection coming off a controversial May 11th legal victory which removed the residency requirement for Maine recreational marijuana businesses. Despite having ownership of half of the currently operational medical dispensaries in Maine, the WCM is owned by Delaware-based High Street Capital Partners and subsequently would be unable to claim the benefits available to in-state organizations. Hoping to transition into the recreational market and facing significant competition from caregivers who also plan on doing so, the Wellness Connection’s legal actions can be seen as threatening what many consider the core tenets of the Maine cannabis scene, which puts Mainers as the forefront in terms of business and employment opportunities.
Lawyers on behalf of the Wellness Connection argued that the residency requirement violates the Constitution’s dormant commerce clause, which guarantees that each state treats citizens of other states equally and were successful in overturning the previous legislature. This however did not stop local governments from enacting town-specific, resident-favorable policies; when Portland approved one such local ordinance in July, the city found itself the target of a Wellness Connection lawsuit which wishes to once again put a halt to locally-favorable legislation.
Rosi and the Wellness Connection’s efforts towards ensuring the success of out-of-state companies did not sit well with many in the Maine cannabis community, who feel strongly that the industry should be run by Mainers and preference should be given to local entities over those not from the state. Spearheaded by pro-local organizations such as the Maine Cannabis Coalition, protests were organized right outside Wellness Connection doors in all four of their locations. In addition to interacting with and educating passing bystanders on the situation, the Coalition also has filed it’s own lawsuit in support of the Portland ordinance, stating that the state and the Office of Marijuana Policy (OMP) had violated state law by not enforcing the residency requirement, specifying that without a court decision officially repealing the legislature, the OMP must abide by it.
The timing of Rosi’s exit has raised eyebrows, with some questioning its relation to the ongoing protests and lawsuits that have inevitably given her former place of employment an increasingly negative public appearance. During the demonstrations outside the Wellness Connection’s Portland location, protestors specifically noted how the company is attempting to leverage it’s high-powered, out-of-state investors and political connections into obtaining more favorable business conditions. They also called out those in government who facilitated the Wellness Connection agenda despite also previously supporting the legislature which ensured that locals would be favored, highlighting their apparent hypocrisy and willingness to go along with oppositional policies.
The fact that Rosi’s successor has yet to be publicly named only fuels the fire more in regard to questioning the company’s motives. Some feel as if her shoes purposefully have yet to be filled in an effort to deflect public criticism under the guise of new beginnings with new management. Peter Bernaiche, owner of AimHigher Extractions, a caregiver and extraction service based in Buxton, is less than hopeful about what the Wellness Connection has planned. Bernaiche sees Rosi’s departure as more or less damage-control and more so about removing an unpopular spokesperson in an attempt to save face. In addition to criticizing the WCM’s record of cultivation violations and history of offering lower quality products compared to local caregivers; Bernaiche sees their ability to get the state to enact favorable policies on their behalf as further evidence that the company is much more interested in controlling the market than it is with playing by the rules and regulations that the community and lawmakers have put in place: “They know they can’t survive on their product quality alone so they squeeze the market and make it hard for anyone else.”
To many like Bernaiche, the only way to improve relations with the community is to make it clear their desire to adapt and operate within the guidelines that were created by and for Mainers, rather than try to get the system to adapt to their needs. Rather than focus on improving quality and meet the demands of the populace, the Wellness Connection continues to attempt to combat the rules which were specifically set in place to prevent big money, out-of-state interests from doing exactly what they are doing.